Port backlogs sum up California’s COVID crisis

Containers are stacked at the Port of Los Angeles in Los Angeles on Oct. 1, 2021. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

The extent to which California’s — and the country and world’s — challenges are interconnected was exemplified by President Joe Biden’s Wednesday announcement that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach will move toward 24/7 operations to help unsnarl massive supply chain backlogs.

Before the pandemic, usually just one cargo ship had to anchor near the ports — which together handle 40% of containers entering the U.S. — while waiting to unload its goods. On Tuesday, there were 58 — down from a record 73 in mid-September. The massive pileup can be traced to, among other things, port closures in China, factory lockdowns in Vietnam, an uptick in online purchases from consumers stuck at home with stimulus checks to spend, and an unprecedented shortage of truckers and warehouse workers needed to transport items from the ports.

The logjam may have also caused Orange County’s largest oil spill in three decades: Officials’ prevailing theory is that a ship anchor pierced an undersea pipeline. And it apparently helped port truckers win $30 million in wage theft settlements announced Tuesday — because truckers are typically classified as independent contractors, they weren’t paid for time spent waiting in hours-long lines at the backed-up ports.

Sailors on the anchored container ships have also been stuck in limbo, resulting in an uptick of medical issues, food shortages, violent fights and reports of depression and suicidal thoughts. To pass the time, said Merry-Jo Dickie, a ship custodian, “they do a lot of shopping online” — ironically, one of the very things contributing to the ship backlog in the first place.

Experts and labor advocates say the supply chain breakdown reflects the extent to which workers are mentally and physically breaking down.

  • Jimmy Hoffa, president of the Teamsters Union“One of the major problems with the current state of logistics is the shortage of port truck drivers. They are not paid a living wage and are largely treated as indentured servants.”

The union representing Hollywood crews announced Wednesday that its tens of thousands of members will strike on Monday if a fair contract isn’t finalized by then — a move that would essentially bring film and TV production to a halt across the country. And the union representing University of California lecturers is holding a second round of informational protests today; if they were to strike, about a third of undergraduate students would see their classes grind to a halt.

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